They Tried to Make Him Go to Rehab

Two months before we met, Mike was sleeping in a crack house in London. “My career was well and truly fucked, I was losing friends fast and I was in and out of hospital,” he recalled. He’d been injecting crystal meth and escorting to support his habit. “Again.” “Was that rock bottom?” I asked. “There were many rock bottoms,” he replied wryly.

We were chatting in a comfortable sitting room in Resort 12, located in Mae Rim about half an hour outside of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “Resort” is a euphemism for a brand new rehab center that opened in November 2017 where LGBTQ clients like Mike, dealing with a range of issues from substance abuse to sexual addiction, come in the hopes of getting their lives back on track. It’s the only specifically LGBTQ rehab center in the world outside of the United States.

Charmed Life

Mike’s is a story of ups and downs, lucky breaks and poor choices. Traveling halfway around the world to Resort 12 could be his last chance, and Mike is determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Now 35, Mike grew up in Slough, the sort of town that sounds like the butt of a half-funny joke, a suburb of London that could most kindly be described as nondescript. “London was 26 miles up the road but it could have been 500 miles in terms of mentality,” he says. He left school at 16, came out and led what by his account was a pretty charmed life.

“We were poor working class Irish and my dad was from the Irish gypsy traveling community. On paper, it should have been quite difficult for me to come out, because they [can be] socially quite backward sometimes. If you’re gay or a woman…” He doesn’t need to finish the sentence to express the ambient machismo.

But it turned out not to be an issue. “Coming out was fine, my mum and dad were cool, there were never no problems.” If anything, being gay was his ticket to bigger and better things. “I never saw that as a hindrance. I knew in some way that being gay was going to take me out of the town where I was living. Coming out was an exciting time. It was a positive experience.”

He got gigs acting and when he wasn’t in front of the camera, he found work on building sites where his father worked. He moved into handling PR for a record label and “living the London life.” He describes his twenty-something self as “quite social, and fairly kind of promiscuous.”

He gets nostalgic when he recalls going out at the time. “There were still clubs! G-A-Y, Heaven, Ghetto, The End,” all iconic venues of the gay scene in the nineties and noughties. “You’d meet guys in clubs and have one night stands, cultivate relationships on the dance floor. Even though drugs were always a constant in these clubs, and drink, it was just done in a social way. You were out and about, clubbing. It was fun.”

Harder Drugs, Darker Sex

At 28, Mike started his own PR agency. “I was earning loads more money. I thought I was less answerable because I wasn’t going into an office.” But that was when things started to change. “I fit my life going out around work.” He pauses. “No, I was getting work around going out. The balance changed.”

What could have been a step towards independence turned out to be a spiral of addiction and dependency? “The day that I started working freelance was the day I picked up a crystal meth pipe. For about two years, the company was successful but it just wasn’t sustainable. My addiction got worse, I was using more. I wasn’t turning up to work. It was pretty textbook. I was canceling appointments, stopped seeing friends, I was isolating [myself], taking drugs with people I didn’t know. Randoms. It got really messy.”

He is very lucid about losing control. “The drugs got harder. I suppose the sex got darker. My life went from being out in clubs to being in bedrooms with the curtains closed. Towards the end, I was escorting to fund my habit because I needed to use every day and it went to me injecting crystal meth.”

What followed was a pattern of ups and downs, looking for help, periods of clean time and going back to work, then relapses and binges. Mike was “making life manageable then fucking it up” over and over. The craving for sex and drugs took over and led to hospitalizations, psychoses, a second rehab, more time clean and an umpteenth relapse.

And then out of the blue, Mike’s guardian angel called with an offer that could save his life.

Counselors and Clients: Shared Experiences

In a separate conversation, Stuart Fenton, Principal Counsellor at Resort 12, acknowledges that the pattern Mike describes is a common one among the resort clients. “The majority of our clients have been alcohol-related, maybe a third crystal meth [and then] sex addiction,” he says. “There is a real variety.”

He, like much of Resort 12’s support staff, knows what he’s talking about. Stu’s own background includes a variety of drugs, starting near home in Sydney and then in New York and London. After a couple of attempts at rehab and finally cleaning up his act, he trained as a counselor and opened his own private practice in Sydney to help others. He’s been in recovery for almost two decades. He moved to Thailand at the end of 2017 to help open the facility.

Mike has responded well to the staff with whom he identifies. “They get you. And they make a point of telling you. They speak to you in a way that you are equal. I think it’s very powerful to have people who are talking to you on the level.”

Homophobia Inside and Out

Stu says that it’s usually not a question of conscious homophobia, but the lack of experience and exposure to situations on the part of the caregivers that creates an obstacle to communication. “It’s not even the depth of understanding or the empathy, it’s the language and the terminology,” he states. “It was an enormous relief when I was able to talk to someone” who understood what he’d been through.

“All of the Resort 12 staff identify as gay. Having people who understand some of the language and who have experienced different things is hugely important,” says Sandi James, also Principal Counsellor at Resort 12, a registered psychologist and former university lecturer with a Master’s of Education. And that’s what makes the place unique. “I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere,” she says, with a note of wonder in her voice.

She “was born in Sydney and did heroin in Sydney” before moving around Australia. Once she sought help and went into recovery, she decided to work to help others. She also joined the team last year. She points to the patients’ own homophobia as a challenge to be addressed. “There are higher rates of trauma experienced by the LGBT community: bullying, harassment and just living in a hetero-dominant world” which lead to “internalized homophobia and the shame of coming out.” Is that true of everybody who comes here? “Pretty much,” Sandi nods.

Mike says that is one of the lessons he has learned since arriving at Resort 12. “When you’re gay, you’re sort of born with the innate shame, whether you like it or not,” he states. “You’re told to harbor the secret for fifteen or sixteen years of your life, and whether you’re cool with your sexuality and I certainly was, it’s there. You are conditioned to watch what you say and how you act and [you have] that fear of getting called out.”

Addressing issues of self-esteem and self-worth is a big part of successful recovery. “The whole point of recovery is a gradual rebuilding of your self-esteem over many years,” says Stu.

Star Power

So how did Mike start his journey to a tropical rehab halfway around the world?

Celebrity endorsements from husband and husband David Furnish and Sir Elton John (who call Resort 12 “vital”), from Boy George who is publicly marking his ten years of sobriety this year, and from Boy George’s best buddy Tony Marnach, better remembered as London DJ Fat Tony, all of whom talk openly about their addictions and recovery, have come pouring in. Fat Tony has been speaking out about his addiction and recovery as Resort 12’s public face, and it is he who was Mike’s unexpected guardian angel.

Mike recalls getting a call from Fat Tony just a few weeks earlier just when he thought he had nowhere to turn. “Before there was always a glimmer of hope, certain friends, a bit of money in the bank. This time there was nothing. I didn’t even have any clothes because I had a suitcase where I was staying and using, and the suitcase got stolen, probably by another user.” Fat Tony, who knew Mike from their clubbing days, called to offer him the opportunity to spend two months at Resort 12. Days later Mike was on a plane to Thailand.

Staying Clean

Mike isn’t out of the woods yet. He made it to Thailand and stepped off the plane. Wasted. “The day before I flew out I decided to use again because in my head that crazy thing said ‘fuck it, if I am going to go to rehab, I am going to have one night and get obliterated.’ Which I did.”

Once he came down, he took in the beauty of the place and embraced the program, well aware that an opportunity like this isn’t going to come twice. He is articulate about why he’s here (“I have a two-pronged addiction to sex and drugs”) and what he’s learned so far.

He draws strength from the non-religious 12-step program, familiar to anyone who has attended an AA meeting, based on surrendering control and developing self-awareness. “You just become a better person [and] a big part of this program is having faith.”

In addition to spiritual strength, he has also found scientific grounding to explain what he’s experiencing. “Looking at addiction as a disease of thinking, of the mind. To learn about the science of it was really powerful.” Other tools he knows he’ll find once he’s back outside are AA or NA meetings, as well as trauma therapists or drug counselors. Resort 12 also runs intensive outpatient services in many major cities for its clients.

He knows it won’t be easy, but he also knows that seeking help is a non-negotiable step on the road to recovery. “I think this place will keep me clean,” says Mike with hope in his voice.

Full disclosure: Mike is a guest of Resort 12, not a paying client. However, all the paying clients we spoke to off the record were satisfied with their experiences and two had voluntarily extended their stays. Four-week all-inclusive treatments at Resort 12 start at $15,000. Some insurance policies will cover the expense of treatment. The center is also actively looking for sponsors to assist clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford treatment.

What Should London’s First LGBTQ Museum Look Like?

Museums and archives dedicated to showcasing the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ community are vitally important for the preservation of often suppressed histories. From Berlin’s Schwules Museum to San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society and New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, there are a number of spaces indispensable to the illumination of the role queer people have played in shaping global culture, and now, a new national LGBTQ museum in the UK is set to join this small group of institutions.

The Queer Britain museum will chart the progress of LGBTQ rights from the introduction of the Buggery Act in 1533 to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014, up to today.

This ambitious museum project is set to open in Southwark, South London, by 2021. Over the next two years the team behind Queer Britain, including Chris Smith, the first openly gay British lawmaker, and Lisa Power, co-founder of equality organisation Stonewall, will be touring the country to discover LGBTQ cultural and artistic artifacts to display in the museum.

At a time when LGBTQ bars and clubs are closing at an unprecedented rate in London, the city desperately needs contemporary queer spaces. “Attempts have been made in the past to establish a LGBTQ museum in the UK, but it’s always felt like a struggle to maintain and create queer spaces – a true reflection of having our voices and histories demonized, hidden from view and silenced,” says Damien Arness Dalton, the co-founder of the Queerseum community project, which has campaigned on the grassroots level for a queer museum in London for years.

“A queer museum can be transformative in learning about the past and to be able to see yourself in collections and stories and celebrate your identity. Now is the perfect time to act and build our community up to see the value in our legacy. Story by story, brick by brick, our histories and spaces we occupy deserve stability and solid foundations,” adds Dalton.

Long-term commitment

 

The need for an inclusive queer museum is clear, but far more consideration needs to be given to what exactly this type of institution should look like today and how it will offer a more rounded exploration of LGBTQ history compared to temporary queer-focused exhibitions.

Mainstream British museums have increased their representation of LGBTQ-related artifacts in their exhibitions over the past few years, particularly in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2017, with Tate Britain’s ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition and the British Museum’s ‘Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBT Histories’ display being two of the most notable examples of this improvement.

It is, of course, a positive development that some of the largest museums and institutions in the country are shedding light on previously unseen LGBTQ stories. Yet, these transient exhibitions are just that – impermanent.

E-J Scott, founder of the Museum of Transology, the largest collection of trans artifacts in the UK, believes that when the majority of these exhibitions came to a close, little trace of them was left behind on the museum walls they were hung on.

“Our queer culture is not a fleeting moment in time, and queer museologists, curators and cultural producers have all established, through robust research, evidence of the existence of our queer heritage embedded in collections across the nation. But they are not necessarily visible in permanent displays,” he says.

LGBTQ-inclusive

 

Just as the vast majority of exhibitions curated by traditional museums have predominantly focused on heterosexual narratives, any proposed LGBTQ museum will have to ensure it does not exclude underrepresented members of the community. Co-founder & CEO of Queer Britain, Joseph Galliano, agrees that marginalized voices should be fully integrated in the museum and told the Museums Association’s Museums Journal when the project was launched:

“It’s not just going to be talking about white male people who look like me. We’ll be putting together a diverse committee to make sure everybody is heard. There is a wealth of untapped resources out there.” 

Representation goes beyond just what is shown on the walls of museums, galleries or cultural institutions, with curators, museum professionals and potential patrons all being expected to have a meaningful voice in the discussions around what goes into the museum.

Starting afresh at a new cultural space will allow for unconventional ideas around curation to be considered that may better suit the needs of the diverse LGBTQ community. “A queer museum has the potential to queer the whole process of collecting, protecting and displaying history,” says Scott.

“It could in fact, be used as a way of rethinking why some communities don’t go to museums, why museums continue to be places that are only really accessed by the elite echelons of society. They are not spaces very often used by trans people, by BAME communities, by the working classes and by the disabled,” he adds.

 

Rich history

 

There is an abundance of iconic artifacts and cultural objects that highlight exactly why a museum with LGBTQ issues at its centre would be able to so effectively showcase forgotten queer histories. From the Warren Cup, a silver drinking cup dated to 5 to 15 CE that depicts men engaged in same-sex activity, to David Hockney’s 1975 etching displaying gay sex, complex representations of LGBTQ people exist throughout history.

Historical archives across London can also provide a strong basis for new museum collections, with specialist queer depositories found at the London School of Economics and Bishopsgate Institute. At the moment, these collections are mainly visited by academics and others with a professional interest, closing off pivotal moments of LGBTQ history to the general public.

An LGBTQ museum will, for the first time in British history, create space for a comprehensive history of the country’s queer community to be displayed. During the creation process of this new institution, it’s essential to keep queerness at the core.

“There is a fear of normalising queerness in a traditional institutionalised museum setting, as history has always been written and presented back to us. We now have an opportunity to dismantle that and profile under-represented groups and create an inclusive dynamic queer space for all. Now is the time we can tell our own stories our way,” says Dalton.

The Queer Traveler: Interview with Blogger Meg Cale

During a recent panel discussion at the first ever LGBT Thailand Travel Symposium in Bangkok, INTO heard travel blogger and social media influencer Meg Cale say that “the bar is set so inexplicably low for lesbian travelers, that really, by doing anything at all to cater to queer women, the LGBT travel industry will be raising the bar.”

After the panel,  INTO interviewed Cale, who currently runs one of the most popular lesbian travel blogs, Dopes on the Road, with her wife, Lindsay Cale. With over 75k readers and 250,000 clicks (just this year alone), Dopes on the Road is one of the most widely read queer travel blogs.  With over six years of travel writing/blogging experience and features in Cosmopolitan, Travel + Leisure, and HuffPost, Meg and Lindsay are some of the most knowledgeable ambassadors for queer women who travel. Their site combines guides like “Summer Packing List for Gender Neutral Clothing” to “40 Safety Tips for LGBT Travelers” as well as top picks for queer women with listicles like “20 Best Lesbian Parties and Lesbian Festivals in the World“.

Your blog, Dopes on the Road is one of the most followed lesbian travel blogs, can you tell me about how it started?

Meg Cale: I started Dopes on the Road when I moved to South Korea for a job in 2013. My first posts were off center grainy photos of me packing to leave for Korea in my girlfriend’s [now wife’s] house. But from the moment I pressed publish on those first heinous posts I was smitten by the world of nomadic entrepreneurship and blogging.

It didn’t take long for me to realize there was very limited information for queer travelers online and started to get questions from folks looking to move to Korea, teach ESL, and travel as queer couples. My background in LGBT advocacy gave me a unique skill set when answering many of these questions. Which is when DotR morphed from personal blog to becoming more professional.

I hoped that DotR would become a space on the internet for LGBT people like me to find resources for travel that felt more familiar to my community. I knew I wanted to inspire others to have adventures in everyday life without sugar-coating the reality of traveling as an LGBT person.

LGBT travelers face a unique set of difficulties when seeing the world. The policies and social acceptance of LGBT people varies widely from country to country, but the reality is that safety is still a huge concern for people when LGBT identity is illegal in 83 countries and territories around the world. It’s my hope to lead by example and inspire other LGBT people to seek out adventures around the world and engage in building community around the world.

 

Since the blog’s founding, what countries have you lived in and how many countries total have you been to?

We’ve lived in three countries, South Korea, the United States and we’re currently based in Merida, Mexico. I stopped counting countries a while back because it felt silly to me but it’s somewhere in the mid-40s, I believe. I find it silly because I don’t want to view travel as a series of hunting trophies but rather a collection of experiences that helped to shape who I am as a person. Of course, as a blogger, being able to say I’ve been to over 100 countries or I’ve been to all seven continents is a professional accolade but it’s definitely not my driving motivation in what we do.

Having experienced so many different countries and cultures, what are some of the best tips you’ve learned that may be helpful to queer women while traveling?

Queer women, nonbinary people, and transgender folks deal with unique issues that other members of the LGBT umbrella may not understand. Queer women, for example, will always be women, a marginalized group in many areas of the world. They are also queer which makes us doubly at risk for potential issues of discrimination and violence. I don’t say this to scare anyone but rather as a cautionary tale. The compounded risk makes research all the more important.

There are several questions queer women should consider before traveling abroad. The first and harshest: can you pass as straight and cisgender? Being able to pass as straight and cisgender is an incredible privilege when visiting countries that aren’t as friendly to LGBT people. If you can, it may be as easy as refraining from physically touching your partner or outing yourself while traveling. If you can’t – you have to decide what options feel safest.  

 

What are your top three favorite travel destinations/experiences for first time queer female travelers?

This one is so tough but I’d say my top countries are Thailand, Spain, and Canada. They all offer very unique experiences but are some of the most welcoming and affirming countries in the world.

For a very social traveler, what are the best worldwide festivals and gatherings for queer women?

Palm Springs’ Dinah Shore is the biggest lesbian festival in the world and a rite of passage for queer women these days. But it’s far from the only event! I recently published a list of some of my favorite lesbian parties and festivals around the world.

What are your favorite destinations and experiences for more experienced travelers?

Oh so many – I loved Banos, a tiny little town in the cloud forest of Ecuador, because waterfalls are a dime a dozen and adventure sports are a way of life. While you won’t find luxury hotels in Banos, you’ll find a new respect for nature and people with the biggest hearts.

Since you began working on the blog with your wife, Lindsay, can you tell me about some of the troubles you have had around the world while traveling together?

Most of our issues traveling have more to do with Lindsay’s gender expression than our sexuality. Lindsay is 6′ tall and very androgynous. She’s significantly taller than an average man in many countries. She’s masculine but not quite masculine enough to always pass as male. Which brings issues everytime we’re doing a gendered activity which is way more frequently than you can imagine. Anything to do with swimming, locker rooms, changing, bathrooms, security scanners, outfit changes, and required clothing has the potential to become anywhere from annoying to physically dangerous.  

How could the travel industry adapt better to accommodate queer women?

I’d love to see gender neutral bathrooms and changing facilities in airports, hotels, and other public tourism venues. Somedays while we’re on the road Lindsay opts to not eat or drink anything for hours and hours to avoid public restrooms. When you’re nervous about having your basic human needs met it’s nearly impossible to enjoy your day. Solving this issue can be as easy as changing signage on already existing single use restrooms to be gender neutral.

I’d also love to see more inclusive marketing campaigns and product development with queer women in mind. It can be as simple as using real queer women rather than models and making sure that their gender presentation is reflective of the broader community.

Recognizing the lack of queer women specific events and tours for queer women in the travel industry, you’ve begun taking on the role of trip planner/organizer. How has that changed your perspective on the travel industry? Which trips do you have coming up?

One of the biggest issues for queer women is the lack of spaces for us to meet each other. Sure, we have apps and social media but many of our bars, coffee shops, festivals, and bookstores have closed. We launched our first group trip last year to Dinah Shore as a way to make space for folks looking to meet people and build community. The first trip was a huge success so we’ve decided to do our next trip to Thailand in October of 2018.

Being on the trip planning side of the industry has really opened my eyes to the millions of tiny details that go into creating a successful trip. It gives me a new level of appreciation and respect for the attention and diligence that goes into the work that agents and trip planners have.

You speak at a lot of travel symposiums and conferences as a respected voice within the industry. What are the main topics you like to bring up?

I’m constantly talking about inclusivity, gender expression, transgender travelers, and content marketing. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to hit all of those topics in one panel discussion. I love being a voice for queer travelers because it’s an opportunity to start a conversation that ultimately leads to a more empathetic and reasonable relationship between the brands who would like to work with us and the LGBT community.

Lastly, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?

This one is so tough because I love so many places but I’d have to say either Chiang Mai, Thailand or Brooklyn, NY. They have more in common than you may think at first. Brooklyn is home for me. I wasn’t born there but it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to truly belonging somewhere. Chiang Mai is a city in northern Thailand that’s well known for its numerous temples, elephant sanctuaries, and as one of the largest digital nomad hubs in the world. There’s some beautiful examples of Thai culture but there’s also a growing startup tech scene that is one of the most interesting and innovative places in the world.

Check out Meg and Lindsay’s adventures at Dopes on the Road and on Instagram — @megcale and @lindscale.

Magical Realism in the Mojave

A curious land.

Roadrunner leaves its prints on the sand.

This is a desert so out of the ordinary a hunk of it was designated the Queer Mountain Wilderness Study Area by the U.S. government in 1992—the same year I was born.

This is a queer land.

I identify with land that has been othered.

Here in Mojave National Preserve, we are in the thickest thicket of joshua trees in the world.

Here in Mojave National Preserve, we are in a very different type of forest.

My friend Anna is among their many whimsical arms lifting up her own to the late afternoon sun in an appreciative salutation. Her hair is up and brushes the sweat on the back of her neck.

This grove of trees lie in the crotch between the rotund 70-acre Cima Dome and lofty Kessler Peak.

Cima Dome is so massive, that if you were plopped on to its summit, you wouldn’t even know you were on the top of a mountain.

It would just look flat.

It is the result of a work-shy volcano.

We had pulled off I-15, the highway that darts through the Mojave Desert and passes right by the sparkler of Las Vegas.

We are south of the City of Sin, off a pavement road, off a dirt road, off a dirt road, off a dirt road near a place called Cima and we have decided to get a better look at our surroundings.

We set up camp. We are on a road trip that will eventually dribble us into Los Angeles.

We follow the roadrunner’s signature that loops like cursive across the sand.

I wonder what kind of things the ground bird chases.

There are prickly pear by our ankles, some of them are generous and offer us their blooms.

A few ladybugs explore the cup of the blossom in hope of aphids.

Most don’t know that the combined weight of all the insects in the world is many many many many times more than the mass of humanity.

We could be squashed by their weight, like an anvil falling off of a butte onto Wile E. Coyote as the Road Runner meeps by.

Right now, in the goldening hours of the day, the desert is giving us curtains of color. I’m not sure what the curtains are made of.

Dust? Distance? Trickery?

The curtains help break apart the space that seems too big for comprehension.

The colors we are seeing are gold like the ore once dynamited, ransacked and left as abandoned mines across the preserve, purple like the underbelly of pillowing storm clouds, and billows of pleasant powder blue.

Anna tells me magical realism doesn’t solely exist within the pages of an Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez novel.

She knows.

She writes award winning stories about girls that are actually manatees that get hit by boats.

She writes stories about hearts like cuckoo clocks.

I always remember that image.

We’ve all had a lover with a heart like a cuckoo clock.

Anna says magical realism isn’t just alive within the beloved films of Hayao Miyazaki.

It exists elsewhere and everywhere.

She has taught me to see the world more fantastically.

It has made me see some mountains as handsome. It has helped me make a blue spruce a boyfriend.

It has helped me feel the arousal of the river’s caress and the sensuality of the breeze when I was alone and ran across the sand dunes of the preserve without my shorts.

It has made me see two hills like the breasts of a woman or, depending on their distance and globularity, like the buttocks of a man.

It has helped me understand what Georgia O’Keefe was really painting when she painted flowers.

Before, I was none the wiser.

But now I know what O’Keefe was really up to when she painted mountains whose spurs spread like legs with wild juniper bushes in their crotches.

All of this has helped me anthropomorphize the land.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving, we might not have bombed the Southwest with nukes in the 1950s and departed so many downwinders.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving, we might not have a current administration so giddy to continue the poisoning of land. Trump and Zinke have already gifted 1.3 million acres of the Mojave to miners ready to abuse the desert.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving,  we would have never had any of these damn pipelines or oceans with plastic islands the size of Texas.

Starbucks has just banned straws.

We like this, but the containers are still plastic.

Literary critic Matthew Strecher once defined “magical realism” as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

 

For some stories, it’s the appearance of an ancestor returning to guide a main character on their journey, perhaps a grandmother returning with wisdom on how to fight fascism and greed. For others, it’s the emergence of a talking animal—like the enormous and godly golden carp of Rudolfo Antoya’s Bless Me, Ultima.

Many other things can happen in the realm of magical realism.

You see, I’ve always believed in the magic of our surroundings, but I had never seen anything truly out of the ordinary.

Yes, polychromatic sunsets and rises, galloping horses on black sand beaches, platypuses darting through the waters of a billabong— but it wasn’t until Anna and I found ourselves on the summit of Kessler Peak, in the middle of the Mojave that I was persuaded.

The Mojave National Preserve is the third biggest wilderness area in the lower 48.  It’s not easy to imagine 1,600,000 acres.

But that doesn’t mean they should make it smaller.

The preserve was designated by Congress in 1996 under the California Desert Protection Act. And under the Obama administration, new land was protected around it—Mojave Trails National Monument with the dazzling Cadiz Dunes and the stately pinnacles of Castle Mountains National Monument.

These preserves have official borders but the land doesn’t recognize them and nor should it.

They blend together as one like watercolors on the page.

The California Desert Protection Act was the grandchild of a woman named Minerva Hoyt who loved the desert so much, she made herself a part of its bloodline.

You would need a million lives to see everything in the preserve and all of these monuments.

You have to camp in the middle of it and take off your clothes and yell a big yippe-ki-yay just to understand the importance of immensity and the possiblitity of space.

The danger of exposure.

There is freedom in space.

In the preserve, there are sand dunes called Kelso that at night, act as a ladder to the moon.

Did I mention that these dunes sing?

Sand dune tunes.

The dryer they are, the sweeter their chorus.

There are mountains called the Old Woman Mountains and a peak called Old Dad Mountain that I’ve renamed Yes Daddy Peak.

There are cliffs with holes like Swiss cheese that birds nest in.

There is a cross that is a memorial to WWI soldiers that was the feature of a Supreme Court Decision that was later stolen and then found 500 miles away in Half Moon Bay, California.

There is physical abandonment in the form of mine shafts and ghost towns with rich tales of death.

There are lava beds and canyons and cougars and even bighorn sheep.

There is a beach without an ocean called the Devil’s Playground that stretches into salt flats of ancient lakes.

As Anna and I climb higher to 6,000 feet on Kessler we can begin to believe all of this. We know that there is not enough time to see it all but that we are many people in this world and maybe we can see it all together and hear about the places we’ll never make it to.

We can begin to imagine all the bugs and insects that are out there as soon as the dusk birds and bats start fattening their bellies.

When we finally reach the top of Kessler, we look for the summit log. We are curious who was before us and where we fit on this mountain’s narrative.

Shadows are casting themselves elegantly and are dressing other mountains and valleys with a sultry black velvet robe that is quite sexy if you ask me.

We continue our search for the summit log among rocks and yuccas in all of that sexiness.

We are writers and are enthusiastic to put our black ink onto  parchment weathered by the Mojave.

We need to tell the next readers who we are and what we saw and log our admiration.

There is a rusty can underneath a rock and the breeze is blowing hard at the top but it isn’t cold, it is like the breath of a dragon.

When we grab the can and open it, the small notebook falls out and so do hundreds of lady bugs.

Some are red and spotted. Others are missing their sports—perhaps they were blown off by the wind, perhaps they had been rubbed off onto other ladybugs.

Some are almost pink and others are the colors tomatoes turn after being in the sun too long. Some are so washed out they are yellow. Whatever their color or spot count they keep spilling from the ground below the can and I am persuaded by the weight of insects.

We are paralyzed by awe and only able to capture the moment by story.

They continue to erupt from the mountain as if we have sliced a laceration across the crown of the mountain. It is as if the mountain is bleeding. It is as if the mountain is a volcano erupting lava like the tectonic plates have passed over a hotspot of spotted insects.

The mountain erupts ladybugs into the sky and they rush to explore the preserve as if it were going somewhere.

The All-Nude Queer Party Where Sex Is Off the Menu

“The idea is that if everybody is naked, the ice is already broken.”

Aditya, 33, was describing the distinctly genial atmosphere at a clothing-free monthly party hosted by Go Naked, a group that fosters social nudism among queer men. “You’re not in a clique or forming the usual opinions that you do at a regular gay bar,” he added of the diverse and friendly crowd at June’s Pride edition of the event. “There’s a sense of community just in being naked.”

“Fuck Clothes Go Naked” (FCGN for short), a party held on the second Thursday of every month in Astoria, Queens, is rare counterprogramming to popular gay nightlife — and not necessarily because of its mandatory clothing check. Sex parties for gay men are resurgent in cities across the U.S., so stripping down to mingle in a jock or less may not be a new experience for some. But Go Naked isn’t about sex.

“I want to know men for who they really are,” said Go Naked’s founder — who requested the pseudonym Alan to protect his identity — “not for their dick or what I’m going to get out of them sexually.” Alan considers Go Naked’s mission, of expressly encouraging social connection over hooking up, as an important pivot that allows queer men to see each other “as more than sexual objects.”

Go Naked’s website states that hosts will ask individuals to leave events if “sexual behavior gets out of control.” The idea is to act like you would in a clothed setting and leave to hook up when sparks begin to fly below the belt, even in the absence of one.

Of course, a room filled with gay men, naked or not, rarely lacks erotic charge. A few pairs could be seen making out here and there, but other than a visible erection or two, there was nothing unusual about the level of physical contact. “I personally like the sexual energy that comes with it,” said Brian, 44, a regular at FCGN since the first party just over two years ago. “Even though there’s no sex,” he added, “I like to be able to look at penises and butts. I do like that. A lot.”

Still, the promise of getting laid, arguably the main draw of most gay bars, is not what seems to keep partygoers returning to the modest neighborhood hangout. “These events aren’t like a typical bar,” said Mark, 54, another frequent guest. “People are a lot more friendly, a lot more approachable, and will engage you more easily than they would in a clothed bar.” Not many guys had paid $15 to strip down and stand around like wallflowers, a popular pastime almost anywhere alcohol is served.

“You can’t hide anything,” Alan, Go Naked’s founder, said of nudity’s tendency to break down social barriers. “You have to communicate and connect with people on a very real and frank level.” Aaron, 37, who organizes his own naked events that are more sexual in nature, called that falling away of self-presentation “primal.” “How you wanted to present yourself to the world is now gone. All you’re left with is your true self,” he said.

That’s no easy position to put oneself in, particularly for queer men who’ve struggled to feel acceptance — of our identities and our bodies, from the mainstream and within our own communities. “You feel very vulnerable because you’re naked and you’re not exactly sure if other people are going to accept you,” Alan said of taking those first steps into social nudism. “The minute somebody else says, ‘Hey, how are you?’ — all of that goes away.”

“It’s a reciprocal thing,” Aditya added. “You can’t be a nudist while you’re judging other people; being a nudist means accepting everyone for looking their natural self.”

While body acceptance is a foundational principle of nudism more broadly, Go Naked strives to be especially inclusive of all different colors, sizes, and variations in gender expression in catering to a younger crowd. As more established nudist organizations have struggled to recruit a new generation as their Baby Boomer members age up, Go Naked’s effort to cultivate diversity goes hand in hand with attracting Millennials. “There’s a new generation of young people who are really trying to understand who they are,” Alan said. “Nudity is a great way to discover that.”

Go Naked began with small get togethers in 2013, hosted in apartments with friends of friends, before the monthly party came to Queens two years later. Its growing website serves as a resource for people curious about social nudism and for organizers hoping to create their own communities. So far, Go Naked has expanded with affiliate groups in Philadelphia, Boston, and Salt Lake City.

The world, it seems, is next: Go Naked recently organized a naked-friendly trip to Honduras for a group of 18; trips to local campgrounds in Pennsylvania have exceeded 150 guests. More adventures are in the works, catering to gay men looking for nude travel options beyond Palm Springs or Key West, where resorts tend to emphasize sex over socializing.  

“If we can normalize nudity, I think it will help us become more accepting of everybody,” Alan said of Go Naked’s ultimate goal. “It doesn’t fucking matter,” he added, referring to one’s race, body type, or gender identity, “because when you can connect with a person and let all of that other stuff go away, that connection is powerful.”

Back at the party, Dean, 24, a FCGN first-timer who identifies as gender fluid, admitted to feeling anxious walking into a bar full of naked male-identifying patrons. “But new things that make me nervous are really good for me,” said Dean, who uses the pronouns “ze” and “hir.” Ze added that similar apprehensions arise in clothed bars, but something about this party was different. “I feel a little less nervous [being naked], I don’t know why,” Dean considered.  

“It’s like imagine the crowd is naked, but now they actually are.”

Photos courtesy of Go Naked and Naveen Kumar.

(Instagram) Guide to East London

East London, which includes Shoreditch, is the city’s hipster equivalent to L.A.’s Silverlake or New York’s Williamsburg. There’s street art, an abundance of gourmet donut shops, trendy boutiques and a signature tattered black clothing style. Fancy farm-to-table, organic, vegan, and gluten-free restaurants line the streets, with hole-in-the-wall cheap eats spots filling in the gaps. Make sure to look right as you’re crossing the street — not just for cars, though, as bikes dominate here. In a massive city such as London, it’s great to have a dedicated area that feels a bit more underground and separate from the rest. For all you Instagram addicts, Shoreditch will not disappoint. What follows are some top Instagrammable spots to impress your followers with.  

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Boxpark

Boxpark Shoreditch opened in 2011 as the world’s first pop-up mall. Entirely constructed out of retrofitted shipping containers, Boxpark is a mixture of a street food market and local/global brand emporium. Boxpark offers affordable and flexible leases for lifestyle brands, cafes, restaurants and galleries.

Old Spitalfields Market

Open 7 days a week, this daily market is home to a selection of carefully chosen traders, craftsmen, artists and artisans, all selected for their quality of product in addition to the stories they have to tell. In the center of the market there are ten fully stocked kitchens where exceptional contemporary and authentic cooking is showcased.

Summer eves

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Exmouth Market

This market is buzzing every weekday around lunchtime with local workers and residents who have come out to taste some of the best street food London has to offer. This is the “real” London, tucked just far enough away from the more touristy parts of the city.

Camden Market

What started off as a small arts and crafts fair, supposedly temporary and only open on Sundays, quickly grew into the largest market in London, open seven days a week. Camden Market is a diverse community of creative sellers, street food traders and independent stores next to the Regent’s Canal. There are over 1,000 places to eat, shop, drink and dance in this historic London location.

We are loving the summer colours in store at the minute🌈☀️

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Rokit Vintage Shop

This vintage clothing and retro treasures shop originally started in a stall in Camden but has since grown to open four stores. Each item here is hand picked with style-conscious, environmentally-aware vintage lovers in mind. Their pieces date from the ‘30s to the ‘90s and cover every major trend.

Ballie Ballerson

What’s better than a ball pit for adults? How about many ball pits for adults inside a really kick-ass bar? There’s a main pit as well as two other exclusive pits for VIP and/or buyouts. The drinks are uniquely strong and the photo ops are endless. Be sure to make a reservation because adult ball pits are definitely in and you don’t want to be stuck outside missing out on all the fun.

Whitechapel Art Gallery

A combination of galleries, exhibitions, artist commissions, collection displays, historical archives, educational resources, and a Café/Bar and Bookshop, the Gallery is open all year round, with lots of photo-worthy art to choose from.

Old Truman Brewery

East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter is home to a hive of creative businesses as well as exclusively independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants. For more than twenty years the Old Truman Brewery has been reimagining its ten acres of vacant and derelict buildings into office, retail, leisure and event spaces. The finely tuned mix of business and leisure has created a unique environment within London.

ATIKA London

This 6,000 sq. ft. shopping hub has an extensive amount of curated vintage clothing, showcasing 20,000 unique pieces dating from the late ‘70s to early ‘00s. They mainly stock high-end labels as well as sports brands with an extensive range of denim.

The Jones Family Project

Set up by a group of friends, this independent restaurant and bar provides the perfect atmosphere for sharing food, drink and quality time with friends. Their ground floor bar has space to work and play, while their main dining room features a full a la carte menu. If you’ve never experienced a London Sunday Roast, this is the place to try one. Their set menu offers either a two or three course meal.

Alternative London

Discover what the guidebooks wont show you. If you are still itching for more of East London, consider an off the beaten path walking tour with this award-winning company. The East London street art and graffiti tour will surely give you access to some quality picture worthy locations while also showcasing some of the places you might not have seen on your own.

Z Hotel Shoreditch (Recommended Stay)

With 111 bedrooms, this perfectly situated hotel is both convenient and inexpensive. The rooms are compact but have everything you need within. The lobby offers a complimentary wine and cheese hour for guests and the service level is beyond what one would expect. Again, the rooms are a bit on the smaller side, but they are clean and modern and the location is unbeatable.

The Hidden Homoerotics of Oslo’s Vigeland Installation

A Scandinavian gloom settled over Norway’s capital city and my friend Frida and I pierced through it on city bikes like arrows. As a local Oslo-ite originally from the the untouched lands of the country’s Lofoten archipelago, Frida was used to inclement Norwegian drear and so the the two of us spoke of sunnier times. A few years ago we met below Cape Town, South Africa’s glorious Table Mountain, where we spent our off time from our study abroad courses exploring the mountain’s many ravines.

 

Reconnected years later on my short Norwegian jaunt, we were braving the chilly rain to visit one of Oslo’s most popular tourist attractions: the Vigeland Installation at Frogner Park.

 

Before my trip, I had never heard of the sculpture park, and I’m surprised I hadn’t—it is currently the largest sculpture park in the world by a single artist and receives over a million annual visitors. The 1942 installation was funded by the Norwegian Bank and contains 212 statues that blanket some 80 acres of Oslo’s Frogner Park; a place of hills, pathways, public pools, and ponds.

 

 

Frida and I dropped our bikes by the park’s entrance and dawdled across the long quad to the the Vigeland Installation. Among the melancholy of elements, the sculptures of humans far in the distance stuck out like sore thumbs in their bronze and granite brilliance—not to mention their nonchalant nakedness in contrast to the bundled and Gore-Texed tourists.

 

On the barrier and railings of the installation’s commencing bridge were 58 bronze statues of men, women, and children. Many of them were frolicsome, like the statue of the man piggybacking his son or of the handsome athlete with his arms stretching ebulliently to the sky. Others showed what appeared to be same-sex intimacy, like the statue of one girl cradling another, or the one of two men locked in a lustful look. And then there was the bizarre, like the angry and lone toddler throwing an epic temper tantrum—or the most wicked, one of a man being attacked by four flying babies.

 

This first set of bronze bridge sculptures served as an introduction to the park and showed some of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s (1869-1943) main themes: humanity, relationships, and the circle of life. By displaying the figures nude (and without naming any of his works) Vigeland achieved a timelessness reminiscent of Greek marble sculptures, each obliging the viewer’s interpretation.

 

 

The night before we visited the park, Frida and I had cooked dinner for her collection of close friends (to name a couple, there was Kristine who had just arrived by train from a surprise weekend in Stockholm with her boyfriend, and there was Anders who as a teen once flew on skis as a jumper.)

 

As our night wound down and we drank Norwegian lagers, I began researching Vigeland’s Installation and found images of the statues. Besides the statues of heteronormative relationships and families, there were also a few naked men wrestling and naked women caressing one another. But despite many of statues’ obvious homoerotics, very few had validated their queerness.

 

I did, however, find that many critics of the installation said it expressed misogyny and fascism and had consequently painted Vigeland as Nazi-sympathizer akin to German artist Arno Breker. And while earlier reports and stories of the statues found the statues disturbing — French/Danish/Norwegian art critic Pola Gauguin said in 1945 that the installation “reeks of nazi mentality” — others, more recently, have not seen the sculptures as brutally.

 

 

Many were emotionally inspired, like Washington Post writer Jennifer Moses, who said of the installation in 2016: “All I can say is that you have to see it to believe it…You stand there staring, jaw dropped, tears flowing.”

 

The Daily Mail expressed neither abhorrence nor astonishment with the collection, naming the works “the weirdest statues in the world.” I slept excited to gather my own interpretation.

 

Frida and I spent the least amount of time in the park’s second section, the fountain that was once designed for the Norwegian Parliament, Eidsvolls Plass, but instead became one of the centerpieces for Vigeland’s installation. Here, a massive sculpture of muscular men held up a giant cascading bowl, while statues of children played in trees on the fountain’s perimeter.

 

 

We climbed the stairs beyond the fountain high into the park’s most iconic section, where 36 statues composed of iddefjord granite from the west coast of Sweden circled a towering monolith composed of 121 bodies of men, women, and children; young and old, strong and weak.

 

This high plateau of the park however, was guarded by a circling series of iron wrought gates decorated by male and female group nudes—though they were always separated by gender. One of the gates contained six men, and appeared to be a sort of precursor to later Tom of Finland sketches (another controversial character, like Vigeland, who eroticized Nazis in his early work), evidenced by their identical hypermasculine builds highlighting muscular buttocks, barreled chests, and bulging calves, as well as for their communal nudity and close proximity to one another; they are touching each other and smiling. On the iron wrought gates with women, two separate naked trios lock arms and smile as their long hair full of flowers flutters in the wind. But these gates aren’t the only homoerotic works in the park.

 

 

Among the 36 granite statues at the center of the park, I found three statues of women in close partnership: the first two young and naked women play and contort their bodies into a ring, a second nude pair shows a woman with her arm slung affectionately over another woman, and in the third, an older woman cares tenderly for another.

 

And alongside these women are plenty of male/female couples (some in throes of love, others in violence) as well as a statue of two children riding their mother like a horse (and using her braid as a bit), as well as a skinny elderly man squashed between two old women, and one statue of two muscular men caressing each other so closely, you can’t tell if they are kissing or quarreling.  

 

Queerness is portrayed not only in bronze and granite at the installation, but also in wrought iron gates. Of the nearly 212 statues and gates, there are same-sex couplings and homoerotics portrayed in about 15 of the works—depending on how generous or strict you are with your interpretation. But it ends up being below 7% of the sculptures, not far off from the self identifying statistics on the percentage of queer people in the world.

 

Vigeland’s attention to idealized male bodies, genitalia, and over the top musculature shows his preference for the male body—it is an ode to hypermasculinity. But the anatomical realism of many of his male statues only adds to the homoeroticism of the same-sex statue pairings.

 

 

In the middle of the high plateau of statues is the installation’s most famous work: an obelisk composed of 121 nude human bodies shooting 45 feet upwards.

 

As Frida and I milled around the statues, I kept coming back to the monolith. For in it, I see the critics’ interpretations of historical abhorrence as well as modern day amazement .

 

I observe the crushing weight of a society piled upon each other with only few benefiting and I understand the terrifying comparisons by critics to footage of the mass graves of Holocaust concentration camps, but I also see inspiration. Although the figures are locked in granite, they appear to be alive in animation— a mix of bodies, genders, orientations, experiences, and spirits struggling through the difficulties of existence but simultaneously emboldening each other skyward.

 

What do you see?

 

Pride of the Heartland: How Kansas City’s Divided LGBTQ Scene Reflects Queer Culture As a Whole

Within just a few hours of arriving in Kansas City, Missouri, I wound up at a porch party. A couple dozen gays and allies gathered to drink ahead of going out — and they were mostly white, as I expected of a midwestern party. It’s Pride in the state’s largest city, so people were decked out in their best rainbow garb. Beers were plentiful; hosts passed jello shots around. It was a perfect slice of queer Americana.

But unlike what you might find at a New York Pride, or a Los Angeles Pride, a lot of the attendees are wearing Pride-themed Kansas City shirts. Probably about half of the few dozen people there were in such shirts. KC lettering in rainbow hearts. Kansas City-themed baseball tees. It was as much a Kansas City pride party as it was a Kansas City Pride party.

I was immediately taken with and inspired by the display. If so many queer people were wearing Kansas City shirts voluntarily at this party, certainly that’s a sign of great love for their home, yes? That they were people invested in making their city — and more specifically, its queer scene — as great as possible?

“I think that’s very generous,” D. Rashaan Gilmore, president and founder of Kansas City advocacy group BlaqOut, told me. He’s being kind; I’m being naïve. “Kansas City has a self-esteem problem. And it probably pre-dates the Arch, but certainly when St. Louis got the Arch. Kansas City went through an identity crisis.”

What I learned over four days in Kansas City was that I should have paid greater attention to the demographics of that porch party. The young, mostly white crowd had reason to be proud of their city — as I would find, the city makes plenty of room for cute white queers. The Kansas City LGBTQ+ scene is effectively racially segregated and offers few exclusive spaces for trans people and/or queer women. That isn’t uncommon, of course; plenty of cities have that exact problem. What’s unique about Kansas City is that, among all the sources I talked to — black, white, Latinx, male, female, trans, gay, queer, lesbian — everyone agreed it’s a problem.

What barriers stand between Kansas City and a more inclusive queer scene, then? For one, the lack of funds available to marginalized communities within the LGBTQ+ umbrella. For another, the existing bars are entirely owned by white gays, and thus remain a space primarily for them. And most crucially, while everyone knows there’s a problem, actually doing something about it would require engaging with the problem and admitting some ugly truths. Gilmore knows from experience with BlaqOut just how tall an order that is.

“It’s Kansas City. Nobody wants to be confrontational,” he said. “I’m not saying it has to be forcefully confrontational, but we’ve got to call a thing a thing, right? We have to be able to say, ‘This is a problem. This is how we’re going to deal with it.’”

“But people don’t want to be uncomfortable.“

I ventured to Kansas City because of one Monique Heart, the ooh-ah-ah sensation and fan favorite of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10. Heart is the first queen from not just Kansas City, but Missouri as a whole, to appear on the show, and spoke frankly about her experience in the city while on the reality competition program.

“I have not done a lot of political work, because I live in a former slave state,” she said on the season’s seventh episode. She explained that she wanted to wear a take on RuPaul’s Rachel Tensions Confederate flag dress from To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar for a challenge. But she was worried about potential consequences back home. “Tensions were really high in Kansas City, and I didn’t want to come back and just get shot.”

Considering the crowd and enthusiasm for Heart during her set at Kansas City Pride, it’s hard to imagine her facing any such consequences now. But it’s still very much a present reality in the city. Gilmore pointed to the March murder of 24-year-old Ta’Ron “Rio” Carson as such a threat, one in a series that has been happening for years now.

“He was just sitting on a wall” waiting for friends, Gilmore said. “An SUV pulls up, two or more individuals jumped out and they fill him full of bullets. … Talk about the world spinning because I can’t imagine anybody would not liking him. He’s the kind of person if you told me you didn’t like Rio, I would look at you like, ‘Okay, something’s wrong with you.’”

Separately, there are reports of a suicide epidemic in Kansas City, one that is affecting even some of its youngest citizens. It’s something many of my sources bring up in our interviews, sometimes off the record. When I talked to Lance Pierce, one of the founding board members of Kansas City’s Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, he acknowledged the perception of a spike in suicides, saying the issue was previously swept under the rug.

All of this suggests one thing to the LGBTQ+ citizens living there: There need to be more spaces for marginalized groups. Pierce himself said there’s a need for more positive and inclusive spaces in Kansas City. And that’s exactly what #GetWoke is trying to create.

Started just over one year ago, and originally hosted by Monique Heart herself, #GetWoke is a space for queer and trans people of color to express themselves — be it through dance, spoken word, other performance, and more. The group was founded after four murders of queer and trans POC in Kansas City, as well as in memory of the victims of the shooting in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub two years ago.

“#GetWoke got started from a group that was called Brown Voices/Brown Pulse. And as the name would suggest, it’s connected to remembering and trying to do events that would elevate awareness about the tragedy in Orlando — but also bring communities together,” explained co-founder Randall Jenson. We spoke on Saturday, after the group’s one-year anniversary event the night before. The event was a dance party, complete with performances by Drag Race veterans Jujubee and Monica Beverly Hillz, but also offered community resources to attendees for the first three hours.

“Our focus became doing events like parties, but party with a purpose, to put it succinctly,” Jenson said of the group’s evolution.

In addition to Jenson, I talked with a group of #GetWoke affiliates that included performers, producers, and one of Jenson’s fellow #GetWoke co-founders, David Seymour. When asked about the mission of the program, Seymour emphasized the need to speak to the needs of everyone who attends the event.

“What is the good that’s going to touch everybody in that room?” he asked. “That’s why we get so many people coming up to us and being so truly thankful and appreciative for the feeling, and the event, and what they experienced because they feel comfortable, they feel safe, they feel welcome, they feel happy, they feel supported.”

Even programs like #GetWoke have their limits, though.

Their Pride event cost minimum $15 to get in, with meet-and-greet and table packages costing even more. That charge is quite literally the cost of doing business; booking talent, venue, food, and more requires funding. But as noted by Star Palmer, executive director of LGBTQ assistance non-profit Our Spot KC, even $15 is a barrier for some.

“I had a ton of friends stop by and they were like, ‘They’re charging $15 to $20 to get in here. I’m not going. I’m going down here where it’s $5,’” Palmer said, referring to a non-specifically queer space elsewhere. The same problem applies to Pride itself, which costs $10 to get into when buying a ticket at the door. “LGBTQ youth represent more than 40% of the homeless population. And of that more than half are also of color. If I was who I am at 15 now, I would most likely not be able to afford to go to these events.”

Another barrier: the labeling of the group itself (which is named “Get Woke: Queer and Trans People of Color” on Facebook). “If I’m black and brown, I may not know anything about #GetWoke. Because they are certain circles and certain status quo of those individuals,” Palmer said. “I may not know what being queer is, it may be offensive to me. I may not know that.”

This, of course, doesn’t invalidate #GetWoke. Far from it; instead, it proves the limitations of just one quarterly event. It proves there’s a need for 20 such programs, all of differing sizes and for different audiences. Making one event appeal to everyone is a thankless task. It’s something the #GetWoke crew spoke of themselves during our chat.

“When we do our events, we’re thinking, ‘How do we engage with black folks? How do we engage with Latinx folks? What kind of music do we play? Do we play house music? Do we play salsa, bachata, merengue, cumbia? Do we play hip-hop?’ That’s the attention that exists, just in that music,” Jenson said. “We’ve got to make sure it’s curated to different styles.”

“People are not used to thinking about everybody and what that really means,” Seymour added. “That’s everybody. Let’s face it, we’re humans. You focus on what you like and what matters to you. When you’re putting on an event for the public and especially when you’re trying to do it with intention and purpose that takes some thinking. That takes some planning.”

“People are not used to thinking about everybody and what that really means. That’s everybody. Let’s face it, we’re humans. You focus on what you like and what matters to you.”

 

Because there are so few events and spaces for LGBTQ+ people of color in Kansas City, the pressure to be something for everyone is amplified. But nothing can truly be for everyone; the city needs more specific spaces, rather than attempting to shoehorn everything and everyone into fewer events.

Palmer herself is trying to add another such space. In July, Palmer and Our Spot KC are launching a new festival, Outskrts, specifically for women, both cis and trans, and anyone who identifies as an LBTQ+ woman. (The G has been purposefully left out of the acronym.) The festival will feature performers, food, vendors, and more, but like #GetWoke, will also provide resources to attendees, particularly regarding both physical and emotional wellness. The goal with Outskrts is, quite simply, “to just offer a safe space for women. To have our own space.”

“I had a position as an outreach manager, and we did a lot of surveys. We did a lot of talking and events in the community, and that’s one of the biggest voids for women: we don’t have anything,” Palmer said. “Our last all women’s club closed, it had to be maybe eight to 10 years ago. … I wanted to create something that folks could look forward to the same as with Pride.”

More spaces for specific groups is the obvious solution. Literally everyone quoted here agrees on that point. But who finances the creation of these spaces? What systems are in place to help people of color, queer women, and trans people get the resources they need to make a more diverse Kansas City LGBTQ+ scene possible? Therein lies the rub.

“The only time we’re dealt with is very transactionally … when in terms of we’re going to fund this project or this project or that project here,” Palmer said. “There’s so many foundations here, there’s so many headquarters here but they don’t fund us, us being folks of color. I don’t care if you are LGBTQ or not, folks of color have to work twice as hard to get to sit at the table and then to be taken seriously. Which is sad. Because I know a lot of folks who work at those organizations who disburse these funds and they disburse them to the same folks.”

Gilmore was even more explicit, naming a set of groups — including the Mid-America Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the AIDS Service Foundation — that he feels could be doing more, but are just paying lip service instead. “There are five or six groups who should be taking a definitive position and a posture that says, ‘We are going to lead in this way.’ They are not,” he said. “Now, if you were to impanel all those groups that I mentioned, have all their presidents and CEOs here, I bet you each and everyone of them could point to some little thing they’re doing, and they would hold it up like a kindergartener with a gold star.”

Pierce is with the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and spoke highly of the AIDS Service Foundation during our interview. When I asked him about the segregation of the queer scene, he spoke of a distrust between parties involved.

“The way someone explained it to me is that unfortunately, because of our history, there are white man spaces and black man spaces. If anyone of those groups is found in the other space, there’s suspicion,” Pierce said. “It’s like if I show up at a ball, it’s like, ‘Why is he here? What’s his agenda? What’s he—?’ The same goes the other way. … You have to be really careful that you’re watching two things: your intention, and that you’re running your intention by people from other perspectives, and then your impact. Because you can have all the right people on the committee, all the right things going with your intention and then impact never translates and it does the complete opposite.”

That unease with one another, Pierce said, leads to dissension over how best to move forward. “How do we elevate our community through economic development? How do we give everybody a piece of the pie? How do we give everybody a piece of the opportunity? It’s delicate,” he said.

The truth is, even if foundations immediately moved to create new and specific spaces for marginalized communities, the divide in Kansas City’s LGBTQ+ scene would still need much time to heal. It goes beyond bars and parties and speaks to something far deeper-seated. It’s ingrained in history. As Monique Heart said on Drag Race, no matter how liberal Kansas City is, or how far people have come, Missouri will always have once been a slave state.

“We’re already aren’t great at creating spaces that people of color feel comfortable.”

 

As evidence of that deeper divide, even some of the most inclusive groups in Kansas City still have trouble with diversifying their membership. Clinton Welby, one of the creators of a men’s nudist group in the city, said that even while creating an accepting space for men to bare all with each other, diversifying the group has been difficult.

“We’re already aren’t great at creating spaces that [make] people of color feel comfortable. This is yet another instance of how do we create space that they are comfortable in a place where we’re already comfortable in,” he said, speaking for the group. “It’s something that we strive to work for when we invite everyone we have in different groups. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they’re saying, ‘I would feel uncomfortable going to this space.’”

There’s an inclination to say that such separate spaces aren’t needed; that existing spaces should be redesigned to be accepting for all instead. But the needs of the few don’t always fit the needs of the many. And when there are contradicting needs, whose are going to be the ones heard? The ones who already have a megaphone: wealthy, white, cisgender men.

I headed to the airport on my final day in Kansas City, having finished my interviews, seen Monique Heart perform, and eaten enough barbecue to sustain me on my flight home. On our way, my Lyft driver, an artist booker with a queer daughter, asked me a bevy of questions. What did I do for work? What did I think of Kansas City? What did I think of Kansas City’s queer scene? Then, after I told him a bit of what I observed in the city, and what I was thinking about writing, he asked: “Are we going to feel ashamed?”

The answer, of course, is no. Because if anyone comes away from this piece thinking Kansas City should be ashamed of its LGBTQ+ scene, then I haven’t done my job. There are problems in the scene, of course, some of them even deadly. The lack of more specific spaces is coming at a literally fatal cost. But that’s happening on a national scale. Plenty of other cities don’t have adequate space for non-gay, cis, white men. And not all of those spaces that do exist are sufficient.

As progress marches on for LGBTQ+ rights, white faces dominate media coverage. Cis male voices are heard first. Queer women don’t feel comfortable at Pride celebrations. People of color aren’t being given seats at the table. It’s our responsibility within our communities to boost those people of color, trans people, and queer women who aren’t depicted as leaders, but have actually been doing the leading all along. Because those are the people fighting hard to be recognized, as can be seen in Kansas City. They’re fighting for the queer soul of their city. But they need the help and funding to make it happen.

I’ve thought a lot about all the Kansas City shirts I saw — not just at that first party, but all weekend — since I left. I think about how, despite their frustrations, Kansas City natives like Palmer and Gilmore give so much of themselves to help make it better. Be it out of pride, shame, love, insecurity, or whatever else, there’s lots of passion for Kansas City within it. The challenge now is channeling that passion to truly, substantially change things for the better.

Header image by Bronwyn Lundberg.

Images courtesy of Khalif Gillett and Joss Barton.

Embrace Biophilia at This New Manhattan Hotel

I’m checking out The Assemblage John Street, a brand new coliving, coworking, and biophilic-designed property (using natural materials, vegetation, lighting and other natural features) in New York City’s Financial District.

 

It’s about 5:45pm and I’m waiting for an the elevator after touring a 12th floor king studio apartment hotel room. When the stainless steel doors of the elevator part, I’m greeted by a guest of the hotel and as I go to press my floor number I see it is already lit. Floor 3. My man-bunned elevator friend and I are both traveling to the same floor.

 

Since it is New York City and we are in an elevator, we experience that awkward moment of silence after saying hello and we soon cascade into a silence of avoided eye contact. Typically, these moments of “do we make small talk or remain silent?” are soundtracked by elevator music of corny do-do-do-da-dahs and minimalist percussion; a few groovy yet mundane guitar riffs here and there if you’re lucky. But not in The Assemblage John Street. The Assemblage is hip, trendy, luxurious, and highly curated.

 

Bumping in the elevator is music that I can only describe as a Tycho sunrise set from Burning Man. It’s minimal, it’s deep house, it has international as well as intergalactic elements, and as my new elevator friend and I are transported nine floors lower I descend in my mind to the playa of Black Rock City, just as the sun is beginning to rise over the hazy desert horizon after a long and strange night.

 

“It’s so,” I say to my elevator friend pointing to the elevator speakers, “…Burning Man?”

 

My man-bunned acquaintance laughs, “Dude,” he says, “this whole hotel is Burning Man.”

 

 

There is some truth to Man Bun’s words. From the ayurvedic restaurant, intention-setting fountain at the front desk, living plant art on the walls, bountiful yoga classes, and massive gong by the front door, there is certainly an emphasis on wellness, unplugging, spirituality, and nature. It’s Burning Man without the desert, camping or wild revelry. There is no bar in the hotel, but there is a focus on making connections, friendships, and creative collaborations with strangers on the floor pillows of the coworking space. From a section of The Assemblage’s “about” section: “John Street offers a friendly, open-minded place of convergence and growth for those at the frontier of social change, self-exploration, and discovery.”

 

I ask my elevator friend a second question before we approach our stop. “Are you going to the sound healing meditation class, too?”

 

“Of course, man,” he says with a smile that is not only as wide as a New York City avenue, but also the breadth of the Mojave desert.

 

 

The Assemblage John Street is the second and largest project for the brand. Located 2.5 miles (and only a few subway stops) from the John Street location is the brand’s first property, The Assemblage NoMad, a 12-floor co-working space (starting at $200 per month) complete with hundreds of communal hot desks and private offices, four meditation rooms, a restaurant, and a tranquil rooftop garden. Also part of The Assemblage family is The Sanctuary, a nature retreat 2 hours outside of the city designed around “reconnecting with nature,” with workshops in “self discovery” and retreats for specific groups, like June’s all women weekend.

 

With the success of NoMad as a popular coworking and lifestyle space in New York City,  The Assemblage John Street opened this past spring to offer an extended experience to overnight guests and short term visitors of Manhattan. The concept comes from an emerging need for short term rentals in large cities and takes its place somewhere between the international SoHo House and NYC-based WeWork, who just launched their newest hotel, WeLive.

 

Each of the property’s 79 room apartments (starting at $359 per night) are available for both short and extended stays with full use of the property’s coworking spaces—nearly 300 hot desks, lounge seating, three meditation rooms, a tea ceremony room (I attended my first cacao ceremony on my last morning before departing) as well as two calming terraces, a rooftop patio, restaurant, yoga studio, AND an elixir bar (I sampled the Lucid Dreaming elixir before going to sound healing- which was, to say the least, a wild, wild time.)

 

 

As the class convened (and my elixir kicked in), the Himalayan chimes and gongs were readied in the sound meditation room. As everyone situated themselves comfortably on the floor, I chatted with a few of the incoming participants. Among the twenty sound meditation enthusiasts were fashion designers, tech start-up big shots, writers exhausted by their old routines of traversing the city in search of spacious and WiFi-capable friendly cafes, as well employees of larger companies who had leased out The Assemblage’s more private office spaces.

 

Many of the participants were using the sound healing meditation as a relaxing break before working long into the night while others were winding down after a heavy day of meetings and emails and phone calls and screen staring. I overheard many of them of them planning to stay beyond  the meditation for the evening talks and events that happen a few times a week, from “Organize and Meditate Presents: White Fragility” to the screening of The Narwhal’s Wake.

 

Wherever they were or weren’t going after, there was an intimacy among them—it doesn’t seem logical to join The Assemblage if you don’t believe in collaboration, friendliness, social and environmental engagement.

 

Soon the long-haired instructor dressed loosely in linen pants instructed us to lay on our backs on the pillows. The session began with chimes and bowls before booming into gongs—ending an hour later with a chorus of chants.

 

 

From Forbes to CNNMoney, New York City always finds itself atop lists of the United States’ most stressful cities. The reasons are predictable and endless: the highest population density, escalating costs of living, serious lack of greenspace (except for Central Park).

 

But in the concrete jungle of the Financial District, The Assemblage John Street offers a little bit of nature—or at least the reminder of it with biophilic design—with garden terraces and rooftops, a commitment to natural lighting, preserved tree fungus ornamenting hallway walls, hundreds of cacti spread across the coworking floors, as well as the hotel’s moss-coated entrance tunnel (as well as  the live moss installations in each hotel room) that infuse the entire building with a sweet, earthy perfume.

 

The greeting scent of the entrance’s moss alone provided me with instant rejuvenation after walking the loud, trash-piled sidewalks and sewer-steaming streets of Manhattan (honestly, what the hell is steaming from those sewers?!). As a nature lover and tree hugger, I adored these touches of the natural world blending kindly with an urban work space, for it’s been estimated we spend nearly ⅓ of our lives at work—some  90,000 hours.

 

Moving to the countryside and truly “connecting” with nature isn’t practical for everyone— so if we must live in a mega-city and we must spend 90,000 hours of our life at work—let all coworking/living spaces, hotels, homes, and as many public spaces as possible be filled to the brim with cactus and moss and Cateracterum Palm and fiddle leaf trees as well as anything else from the most glorious and lofty kingdom, Plantae.

 

Let us smile in the presence of plants.

 

Let us not overlook biophilia as a hip trend set by luxurious hotels and coworking spaces by rolling our eyes like we do when our friends tell us their Burning Man tales—let biophilia be the bedrock of our future planning and commonplace in public spheres.

Cover photo courtesy of Inna Shnayder

Hanging in Huntington Beach – 10 Things Not To Miss

Huntington Beach, AKA Surf City USA, has always been a hidden paradise to those immersed within surf culture, but the northern Orange County city really hasn’t been on the travel radar much, until now. The city is ramping up efforts to make the itself a destination for every type of traveler that’s looking for a California beach town, centrally located between both San Diego and Los Angeles. Below is a list of things not to miss while visiting or passing through Surf City!

It’s lit 🔥 #SurfCityUSA (📷: @calbaptist)

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Beach Bonfires – Not every Southern California beach allows bonfires, but Huntington Beach actually has over 500 bonfire rings available to the public – free of charge, on a first-come, first-serve basis. There’s no better way than to enjoy the coastline with friends, as well as some marshmallows.

 

Surf City Nights – This special street fair that takes place along Main Street between Walnut and Orange Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach, occurs every Tuesday, year round. During Surf City Nights, there’s a farmer’s market, bounce-house for the kids, street performers – both musical and non-musical acts – sidewalk sales, and restaurant samplings, among other fun stuff.

Pacific City: Shopping and Dining – Located right on Pacific Coast Highway with killer beach views, the city’s newest shopping, dining and lifestyle destination opened in November of last year. It boasts over 191,000 square feet of unique shops and eateries. Saint Marc Pub-Café, Bakery & Cheese Affinage is the one dining option that is an absolute must. This new restaurant concept that allows patrons to order and pay via an iPad, offers nostalgic Americana cuisine and caters to both the local surfer just wanting some tasty bacon to go and the dedicated Sunday brunch crowd wanting to spend hours sampling from the eclectic menu.

Attended our board meeting today 🤙🏼 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @lorileavelle

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Immerse Yourself in Huntington Beach’s Surf Culture – There’s a reason it’s called Surf City USA, and the city is extremely proud of its surf culture. The Surfing Walk of Fame is like its cousin in Hollywood,  a stretch of sidewalk that pays tribute to the immortals of surfing. The Surfer’s Hall of Fame honors legends of surfing by immortalizing their handprints, footprints and signatures in the sidewalk, in front of Huntington Surf & Sport. The highlight there is the life-size bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. And for a more educational experience, the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum is a nice fun place to explore. The museum houses collections of surfing memorabilia and has rotating exhibits.

Enjoying the last bit of weekend 🤙🏼 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @derekrliang

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Walk the Huntington Beach Pier – The pier came to existence in 1904 and is a landmark and integral part of Huntington Beach. Today’s pier, which has been rebuilt after two storms in the 1980s, stretches 1,856 feet into the Pacific Ocean, making it one of the longest piers on the West Coast. The crowd is a great mixture of both visitors and locals, and it offers the perfect place to catch a sunset.

Explore Huntington Harbour – Located on the northwest corner of Huntington Beach bordering Seal Beach and Sunset Beach, Huntington Harbour is made up of five man-made islands bounded by a network of navigable channels and the land surrounding them. Water activities here include stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, electric boats, sport fishing and gondola rides, all which provide views of beautiful multi-million dollar homes, private docks and yachts.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – This place is one of the best birding spots in the United States, attracting nearly 200 bird species, including rare and endangered species. The reserve is open to foot traffic and offers 8 miles of hiking trails for both the bird enthusiast as well as the bird admirer.

Huntington Dog Beach – Got a pup, or just love dogs? If so, Huntington Dog Beach is an amazing 1.5 miles of pure pooch paradise. Named one of the country’s top 10 Fido-friendly beaches by Fido Friendly Magazine (yes, that’s a real publication), this beach is doggie nirvana. The beach is off-leash so make sure your dog is semi-trained and up for some fun with many, many friends.

Weekend plans 🚴‍♂️ 🌊🌞🌈 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @lyndikennedy

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Beach Volleyball – There are 20 courts that cluster around the north and south side of Huntington Beach Pier, and ten more courts are grouped by two between the pier and a nearby hotel resort, so if playing or watching volleyball is your thing, this is the place to be. Just bring your own ball or rent one from the many beach concessionaires or borrow one from your hotel. The Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour takes over the Huntington Beach Pier annually for a three-day competition and full-on beach festival. The tournament also features interactive activations, athlete appearances, vendors, and more — all free to the public!

How we commute to the beach 🏄🌴☀️ #SurfCityUSA 📷: @stillalexander

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Surf Lessons and the US Open of Surfing – Consider surf lessons in Huntington Beach the same way you would consider hitting a home run in a Major League Baseball stadium, or shooting some hoops in an NBA arena – because that’s exactly what it’s like. Surf lessons can be taken at numerous locations throughout Huntington Beach, including nearby resorts and hotels. Additionally, the US Open of Surfing, the world’s largest surf competition and lifestyle festival, is held each summer, and over half a million people descend upon the beaches to enjoy nine fun and sun-filled days.